SEC off to a fast start

Just two weeks past national signing day, there are already 81 (and counting) players committed to BCS conference schools for the Class of 2012. That number isn't surprising, but where the players are heading is.

Typically, it's the Big 12 that paves the way, particularly the University of Texas. Mack Brown and the Longhorns are off to their usual good start with six commitments. That number should at least triple over the next two months, based on how they have locked up the majority of their classes by spring over the past several years.

What's surprising is that the Southeastern Conference leads the way with 25 commitments, the most of any BCS conference. While the recruiting process has evolved over the last 10 years with more and more programs getting commits from players earlier and earlier, the SEC was the last league to really embrace the pace. Now it leads the way in 2012, led by Alabama's eight commitments, including ESPNU 150 Watch List member RB Kenyan Drake (Powder Springs, Ga./Hillgrove).

"Alabama offered me at their junior day and I came home and decided to do it," Drake said. "I have been going back and forth with them and the other schools that have offered me, especially Georgia and Georgia Tech. But I knew where I wanted to go, so why wait?"

Defensive tackle Dakota Ball (Pepperell, Ga./Pepperell), defensive end Caleb Gulledge (Prattville, Ala./Prattville), outside linebacker Reggie Ragland (Madison, Ala./Bob Jones) and athletes Eddie Williams (Pensacola, Fla./Arnold) and Justin Thomas (Prattville, Ala./Prattville) are also big-name 2012 recruits headed to Tuscaloosa.

LSU is second in the conference with five commits, led by Watch List prospects wide receiver Avery Johnson (Pompano Beach, Fla./Ely) and linebacker Trey Granier (Thibodaux, La./Thibodaux). The Tigers have a recruiting formula that they adhere to and there is no denying it works well.

"We look at evaluations based on sophomore and junior footage if we offer recruits early," said LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. "We have to see them and have access to the kids. We want to get them on campus and to camp. The early commitments for us are the ones we have built relationships with for like the two previous years. We feel very comfortable doing it this way and we truly embrace it."

Georgia is a team that closed fast with its 2011 class and is off to a fast start for 2012 with four commitments. Arkansas and Florida each have three commitments.

"So much of our success has to do with getting kids on campus," said Tim Horton, Arkansas' recruiting coordinator for the past four years. "We feel if we can do that, then we really have a chance to get them. That happened this past year and we were about 80 percent done going into January. I mean the hay was in the barn and that allowed us to work ahead. That's critical."

There are three key factors to be successful with early commitments. First, teams have to jump ahead with the evaluation phase of the recruiting process. Most programs getting commitments now started the evaluation phase one to two years ago. Second, coaches have to foster relationships with recruits, their families and coaches and build up trust. Third, get the prospects on campus as many times as possible. This has become increasingly more important in recent years with the acceleration of the recruiting process. Summer camps and junior days have become just as important as the official visit. Just a few short years ago it was the official visit that reigned supreme.

"There is no question that there is a premium on camps and junior days, especially junior days," Wilson said. "You have to put your best foot forward and get those kids on campus. Junior days have become almost like mini-official visits. They are so big and so important now."

The Big 12 is third among the BCS conferences with 20 commits, while the ACC has 18, the Big Ten 11, the Pac-12 seven and the Big East two.

Not surprisingly, Florida State, which had the nation's top class for 2011, is leading all ACC schools with six commits.

"It's all about getting ahead," said Dameyune Craig, Florida State's recruiting coordinator. "Last year when we got here we aggressively began looking at kids in '11 and '12. We have a great evaluation process with Coach [Jimbo] Fisher and it takes a lot of work and energy but it's something we feel comfortable with. I was surprised when I got here how hard it was, but FSU was down and we had to build it back up. That was my job, to plug the history with all these young kids. They didn't know about that. We had to get the name back out. Winning last year helped but it was mostly hard work. Now we have created a lot of momentum."

The Seminoles are loading up once again with names like defensive end Dante Fowler (St. Petersburg, Fla./Lakewood), running back Mario Pender (Cape Coral, Fla./Island Coast) and athlete Chris Casher (Mobile, Ala./Faith Academy).

Another intriguing number with the early commitments is 14. That's the combined total of the "Big Three" in the Sunshine State between Florida State, Florida and Miami. For years, the powerhouse trio gathered the majority of their commitments during the later stages of the recruiting cycle, not the early stages. Now, they're starting earlier.

"I think it's very important that we got out of the gate well and with the right guys," said Brennan Carroll, Miami's recruiting coordinator. "We are going to compete hard to put together the right class that fit our systems. Momentum is important and we naturally struggled to get in with the kids. It's all about building those relationships. We have to get that done."

New Miami coach Al Golden and his staff had a short recruiting window with their first class, but they closed well and that momentum has carried over. Watch List quarterback Gray Crow (Clearwater, Fla./Countryside), outside linebacker Keith Brown (Miami, Fla./Norland), running back Randy Johnson (Miami, Fla./Norland) and cornerbacks Amos Leggett (Miami, Fla./Gulliver Prep) and Willie Bailey (Hallandale, Fla.) have already committed to the Canes.

Will Muschamp and Florida got a big commitment Monday when Watch List running back Matt Jones (Seffner, Fla./Armwood) chose the Gators.

"For Matt, he has always wanted to play close to home and close to his mom, so that was a big deal," said Armwood coach Sean Callahan. "But he really did it early to focus on academics and to make recruiting not a distraction. He's an elite player and it would have become a huge distraction for him. It's a win-win situation and now he can really focus on school and football and not have to worry about recruiting."

The Gators' other two commitments are also Watch List members: offensive tackle Omari Phillips (Venice, Fla.) and wide receiver LaTroy Pittman (Citra, Fla./North Marion).

The case can be made the SEC has recruited better than any other conference for years, and that it's joining the race to get prospects early could be frightening to others. But it's still a long, long way from 2012 national signing day. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

"The bottom line is that you have to get ahead of the game or you will be left behind," Wilson said. "That's the deal. But just because you get an early commitment or you lose an early commitment to another school doesn't mean much. What it does mean is that an early commitment identifies the top competitor, so the battle has just begun because it's a fight until signing day. "

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.